by Michael Conlon
Today it is remembered as little more than a footnote in Ripper studies, but the turn-of-the-century murder of Carrie Brown, alias "Old Shakespeare", once dominated every New York headline and instigated the largest manhunt of its time in that burgeoning metropolis. For a brief period in the Spring of 1891, the greatest city in the United States was shaken with the very real conviction that "Jack The Ripper" had made its teeming streets his new killing fields.
The lurid headline in the New York Herald was typical of those appearing the morning of April 25, 1891: "Ghastly Butchery By A ‘Jack The Ripper’. Murder and Mutilation in Local Whitechapel Almost Identical with the Terrible Work of the Mysterious London Fiend. Strangled First, Then Cut To Pieces." 'The article which followed, echoing every other city and many national papers unequivocally announced that "Jack The Ripper has begun his terrible work here."
Indeed, the murder strongly pointed to the Ripper. "The woman had been strangled to death. Then had followed the mutilation which connected the crime with 'Jack The Ripper's' handicraft. Beginning near the end of the spine the murderer had cut deeply frontward to a point on the lower part of the abdomen and then back again to where he started. What he had cut away had disappeared. He must have taken it with him ... Disembowelling had followed this awful surgery."(1)
The victim and her killer became objects of intense speculation and investigation. Still an inveterate prostitute at the age of sixty, it was discovered that Brown had been highly educated and once comfortably well off. Drinking was her ostensive downfall, costing her the loss of husband, household and children. A life of accelerating dissipation led her inexorably to the squalor of the New York docksides and a horrific death in a 25-cent-a-room flophouse beneath the looming shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Information on her killer was far slower in coming. What was initially known was that at about a quarter to midnight on the evening of April 23, Carrie Brown entered the East River Hotel on the south-east corner of Water Street and Catherine Slip with a man half her age. At the behest of Edward Fitzgerald, the nightwatchman, Mary Miniter, a prostitute and habitue of the place, assisted the incongruent couple in procuring a room. Miniter would later recall that Brown was "noisy and drunken hilarious" while the man was silent and grim. They were assigned room #31 and directed up the gloomy stairwell At 10 A.M. The next morning, Fitzgerald was making his appointed rounds of the rooms and discovered the carnage.
The police were confident that Mary Miniter was a solid witness. She felt as if she had gotten a good look at the man and was sure she could recognize him again. She described him as being about five feet eight inches tall, about thirty years old with a long, sharp nose, light-brown mustache and light-brown hair. She thought from the few words he spoke, that he was a foreigner. He wore a light overcoat a black derby and impressed her as fairly well dressed.
Personally taking charge of the investigation was Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes, head of the detective bureau of the N.Y.P.D. From the outset, Byrnes was under pressure. During the height of the Whitechapel murders, he had rather temerariously opined to the British paper, The Star, on the "commonsense way" he'd go about catching the Ripper, eschewing what he perceived to be the vague and effete theorizing of Scotland Yard in favor of practical, pro-active policing. He concluded his appraisal of comparative constableship with the undiplomatic exclamation; "But-pshaw ! What's the good in talking? The murderer would have been caught long ago." Two days, in fact is the length of time Byrnes gave the Ripper in New York before he would be captured. The Chicago Tribune now taunted that: "The Scotland Yard officials are exultant over the fact that Inspector Byrnes, whose sometime criticism of the London police still rankles in the bosom of those functionaries, has now the opportunity to exercise his powers in a direction which has baffled Londoners."(2) Indeed, many papers now suggested that it was Byrnes braggadocio which, having reached the Ripper's notice, now brought him to America's shores.
Lo and behold, within two days of Brown's murder, Byrnes was telling the press that the identity of the Ripper was known: "He is a cousin of one of the suspects who was arrested in [the night after the killing]. This suspect was known in Water street as 'Frenchy' . . . Possibly that is also the name of his cousin, the murderer.” The two were apparently well known as "the most vicious creatures in the quarter ... They had a mania for vice in its lowest form."(3) Both men were reported to be Algerians.
The two "cousins" were quickly dubbed "Frenchy No. l" and "Frenchy No.2" by the press and police. The man in custody, Frenchy No.1, was named Ameer Ben Ali, and was described as a "dark complexioned man with a black mustache and black hair." Frenchy No.2, the man the police sought as the killer, "was very much like [Frenchy No.1] in expression and shape of his face, but was of a light complexion. He had a light brown mustache ... and light hair."(4) Both were described as having long, sharp noses. Inspector Byrnes expected the arrest of Frenchy No.2 imminently.
But the days passed, pressure mounted and despite scores of arrests, Frenchy No.2 eluded what the papers called the biggest dragnet in New York history. Mary Miniter, the police's star witness, was shown every likely suspect swept up in the mammoth search. She failed to identify any one of them. Although her suspect description tallied exactly with that of the elusive Frenchy No.2, Byrnes was beginning to lose faith in her. The din of derision was growing louder and Byrnes needed results quickly.
Despite the consistent descriptions of Frenchy No.2 by area prostitutes, Byrnes announced to the papers “… the police were no longer confining themselves to the description generally accepted... the people depended upon to give it were a drunken lot without enough intelligence to remember how the man looked." (5) It seemed that if the police couldn't find the man described, they would find another description.
The following day, the Morning Journal printed "Byrne’s Extraordinary Denial' in which the Inspector stated, "I wish to deny emphatically that we believe that Frenchy No.2 ... is suspected of the murder. I never thought so or said so." The article went on to say that
"The Inspector undoubtedly had some deep reason for making such strange denials, but what he meant by them even his oldest detectives cannot fathom later in the day the Inspector when again questioned in regard to his denials, refused to either deny or confirm his original denials."(6)
Following this, The Press reported that "the detectives of Europe are watching his movements with eager interest and perhaps restraining with difficulty a disposition to smile.” (7)
What the papers did not then know was that Byrnes was constructing a case against the man they had in custody, Frenchy No. l. The nature of just how artificially this case was being constructed would later cause an outcry in the press and eventually gain Ameer Ben Ali his pardon eleven long years after his questionable conviction. As it happened, Ali had been staying in a room in the East River Hotel the same night that Frenchy No.2 was seen to take Brown up to her death. Ali (or Frenchy No.1) had entered the same hotel a short while after Brown was seen to enter with Frenchy No.2. The police now claimed that Frenchy No.2 had somehow left the hotel without being seen and without killing Brown, whereafter, Ali then entered room #31 and slaughtered her himself.
Mary Miniter, once the prime witness, insisted to the press that Ali was not the man she had seen. The police said that it no longer mattered insofar as the man she had seen and whom everyone else had described left the hotel without killing Brown. Besides, Byrnes told the press, Miniter was, "an opium fiend, and has associated with Chinamen." (8) Suddenly, the police claimed they had new evidence, a blood trail leading from the room in which Brown died across the hall to the room in which Ali had been staying.
Immediately the press was dubious. If all this were true, why the wild-goose-chase for Frenchy No.2? And more importantly, why had none of the score of reporters who had seen Brown's body in situ the day it was found not notice any blood trail? The New York Daily Tribune spoke for almost all the papers when speaking of the 'expert' witnesses to this new evidence, it stated: "Some of them are counted upon to declare that bloody marks were found in 'Frenchy's' room, on its door, chair and bed, and that there was a faint blood trail from one room into the other. But if any such marks exist they escaped the attention of the reporters who came in upon the scene while the murdered woman yet lay where she fell, and to do that they must have been very faint indeed ... but evidence of this sort ... loses its convincing force in proportion as it becomes intangible." (9)
Indeed, it seemed so intangible that at the Inquest one detective stated under cross-examination that he saw no blood trail until a day after having first inspected the scene, a day after the previous detective on the witness stand claimed that he had removed them as evidence. Inevitably, Ali was tried and convicted. Immediately the newspapers decried the trial and one of the jurors came forward to say that the jury had been tampered with and a miscarriage of justice done. (10) Eventually, after a reinvestigation of the case, Ali was pardoned and freed.
Who then did kill "Old Shakespeare? It is my contention that it was indeed Frenchy No.2, and evidence I have uncovered indicates that Frenchy No.2 may well have been Jack The Ripper. In the course of digging through hundreds of pages from both the D.A.'s closed-case file and the D.A.'s Scrapbooks pertaining to this case, I uncovered some highly intriguing press cuttings regarding the identity and history of Frenchy No.2.
Sometime after the police had given up hope of finding Frenchy No.2 and had begun inventing a case against Ali, Frenchy No.2 turned up as police arrest No.120. It came about in this way: "The arrest was made on information published in The World, which was received from one of its New Jersey readers. This statement is as follows: There is a man named 'Frenchy' who answers the description of Frenchy No.2, and who was arrested in London about a year and a half ago in connection with the Whitechapel murders ... During the past two or three years this man has been crossing back and forth between this country and England on the freight steamers that carry cattle ... the sailors on the cattle ships tell horrible stories of his cruelty to the dumb brutes in his care. When one of these animals would break a leg or receive some injury that necessitated its slaughter, 'Frenchy', they say, would take apparent delight in carving it up alive while the sailors looked on. No one dared oppose him, his temper was so bad. When he was arrested on suspicion that he was 'Jack The Ripper' he knocked down the officer who tackled him and made things very lively for half a dozen men before they got him under control." (11)
The Jersey City Chief of Police eagerly sent word to Byrnes that he had Frenchy No.2 in custody, unaware that machinations to convict Ali were already underway. A detective sergeant was sent over to question him. We are simply informed that, "the detective concluded that the cattleman could not have roomed with 'Shakespeare' on the fatal night and he was released." (12) Several reporters tracked Frenchy No.2 down to a lodging house, describing him as having a long nose and closely fitting Miniter's description. "The night of the East River Hotel murder" he said, "I passed in this lodging house . . . My name is Arbie La Bruckman, but I am commonly called John Francis. I was born in Morocco twenty nine years ago. I arrived here on the steamer April 10 from London . . ." The reporter asked, "Why were you arrested in London?" La Bruckman replied, "About 11 o'clock one night a little after Christmas, 1889, 1 was walking along the street I carried a small satchel. I was bound for Hull, England, where I was to take another ship. Before I reached the depot, I was arrested and taken to the London Headquarters. I was locked up for a month, placed on trial and duly acquitted. After my discharge the Government gave me £100 and a suit of clothes for the inconvenience I had suffered." (13)
The Daily Continent, following up this story, stated that; "For the past fourteen years [La Bruckman] has been employed by Meyer Goldsmith as a cattleman on the steamers of the National Line, plying between this port and London. La Bruckman felt so bad about his arrest that he wept when locked up in a cell to await instructions from the New York police. Detective Sergeant McCloskey went over to Jersey City in the afternoon glanced at the prisoner, and said that he was not wanted ... Detective McCloskey said that the fellow was the man familiarly known as Frenchy No.2, but he was not the murderer ... [La Bruckman] freely acknowledged that he was arrested in London eighteen months ago on suspicion of being the Whitechapel murderer. He claims that his trial for killing one of Jack The Ripper’s victims lasted two weeks, and when he was acquitted the Government gave him $500 and a new suit of clothes ... He has signed to sail on the steamer Buffalo next Saturday" (14)
A month after the conviction of Ameer Ben Ali, a story appeared in the Morning Journal under the headline "Is It Jack's Work", telling of the discovery in the East River of the mutilated body of a 45 year old prostitute. 'The story pointed out that the killing was strikingly similar to that of "Old Shakespeare". It seemed that Jack was still at large.
The remarkable information, of a prime suspect in a Ripper-like murder in New York who also happened to have been arrested and tried as Jack The Ripper in London, seems to warrant Arbie La Bruckman as a new and viable candidate for the Whitechapel killer. Obviously, questions need to be answered and more work needs to be done. I am currently tracking down apposite shipping lists and pursuing British court records involving the startling claim that La Bruckman, alias John Francis, was tried for a Ripper murder in London sometime in 1890. Perhaps future research will prove that Jack The Ripper left a bloody trail across at least two nations and managed to slip from the grasp of both their justice systems.Notes and references
- The New York Herald, April 25, 1891
- The Chicago Tribune, April 25,1891
- The New York Herald, April 26,1891
- Ibid., April 27,1891
- The Morning Journal, April 28,1891
- The Press, April 29,1891
- The World, April 31,1891
- The New York Daily Tribune, May 2, 1891
- The Herald, July 3, 1891
- The World, April 30,1891
- The Daily Continent April 30, 1891
- The Morning Journal, Aug. 3, 1891
- The Chicago Tribune, April 25,1891
All of the above citations, with the exception of #2, can be found in roll # 1 1 of the New York County District Attorney Scrapbooks, vols. #83-90, housed in the New York City Municipal Archives, 31 Chambers Street New York, N.Y.
'The Algerian 'Frenchy No. l' and the Moroccan ' Frenchy No.2' were presumably so-called because their first language was French.